Why Trump's Executive Orders On Climate Are Impotent, According To Congressional Research Service

President Trump is unlikely to succeed in reversing climate and energy policies he has targeted by executive order, according to a Congressional Research Service legal brief released this week, at least in part because of his own language.
In a March 28 order, Trump rescinded the government's Social Cost of Carbon estimate, scrapping years of work by economists to figure out how much each ton of emitted CO2 costs the world in climate effects (about $40, they concluded). Trump also disbanded the interagency group of economists who were continuing that work.
But federal agencies, who now have no government-wide estimate to rely upon, still have to include a social cost of carbon in their calculations, according to CRS analysts.
Trump's executive order does not rescind Bill Clinton's 1993 Executive Order 12866, which requires government agencies to assess the environmental impacts of its actions, including the environmental impacts of rescinding rules. The government and the courts have long interpreted environmental impacts to include carbon costs.
Even Trump's own executive order ordering the reversals, Executive Order 13783, requires government agencies "to protect the public interest or otherwise comply with the law." This too means accounting for carbon costs.
The courts are likely to continue to fault government actions that fail to account for carbon costs, especially National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews, as they were doing prior to the development of the social cost of carbon policy, CRS says. Signed into law by President Nixon in 1970, NEPA requires the government to study and state the environmental impacts of its actions.
"Without additional guidance, in order to comply with Executive Orders 12866 and 13783 and NEPA requirements, federal agencies will likely still need to determine how to assess the climate-related costs and benefits associated with rulemakings," the Congressional Research Service concludes in a legal sidebar dated April 20. The sidebar was released by the Federation of American Scientists on Wednesday.
The weakness of Trump's action is well known by insiders on both sides of the aisle. According to Republican Jeffrey Holmstead, a former EPA assistant administrator under George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, Trump's executive order restarts the process of calculating a social cost of carbon.
"The problem is that there’s many federal programs where you need to have a way of evaluating the costs and benefits, when you’re looking at the climate change impacts," Holmstead said April 18 during a forum sponsored by the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and the Energy Policy Institute at Chicago.
"He may have eliminated the guidance and the social cost of carbon, but because of the way the laws are structured, we still need to take these things into account."
The social cost of carbon will have to return, Holmstead said, and it will likely arrive in disguise.
"Really what the executive order does is it will kick off this process that will play out over the next four years and we’ll see what happens with a new social cost of carbon that won’t be called that. It will be called something else. The guidance was eliminated but (agencies) will still have to have to have some way of showing that they evaluated the climate-change impact, otherwise the NEPA evaluation will be struck down in court. So it’s the beginning of a long process."
Michael Greenstone, the University of Chicago economist who headed President Obama's effort to estimate the social cost of carbon, said the estimate is necessary to balance the benefits of climate regulations against costs to business.
"In order to have things on an even playing field, you have to be able to turn the carbon reductions into money," he said.
Should the Trump Administration still hold power when the social cost of carbon returns in disguise, it may try to tinker with the calculation to greatly reduce present investment in future outcomes. It's a complex calculation that Greenstone describes in detail in a recent op-ed.
"A technical issue related to it is how much do we value the future," Greenstone said. "There’s one approach, toward which the Trump Administration seems to be leaning, which is placing a low value on what happens into the future."
So the social cost of carbon that returns in disguise may be diluted. And dilute and delay may be Trump's effects. His executive order requires agencies to review regulations that are currently being challenged in court, CRS notes, including the Clean Power Plan, the methane rule addressing leaks from oil and gas operations, greenhouse-gas emissions guidelines for existing power plants, and restrictions on oil and gas development on federal lands. Because agencies have just initiated reviews of those regulations, the courts are likely to postpone hearings in each case.

Tip Jar: If you found value on this page, please consider tipping the author.